The church had ground up five pastors in ten years. During my interview to be their next pastor, the board blamed the turnover on the resigning pastors. I didn't entirely believe them, but still I agreed to be their next victim, ahem, I mean, lead pastor. Perhaps I was engrossed in some sort of ministerial hallucination, but I really thought I was the one who could fix this church.
My bubble soon popped.
Four weeks into my ministry there, I realized this church had more factions than the Corinthian church of the first century! There was a group for the preschool and a group against it. There was the camp that wanted guitar-led singing and the one that was for piano-led music. Some wanted to keep children in the congregational worship service but others didn't want any minors in the sanctuary. Ever.
Several mid-lifers insisted I spend more time caring for seniors in the church while those seniors challenged me to spend more time reaching out to the unchurched in our community. There were the "small groups are from the devil" and the "if you love Jesus you'll join a small group" factions. As you may have guessed, every one of these special interest groups had its spokesperson. Most of these lobbyists arranged to meet with me during my first three months at the church. They meant well, I'm sure, but didn't want me to think well of the people in the opposing camp.
At first I tried my best to hear and love people on all sides. I strove not to pick sides and sought to reconcile people in conflict. But the in-fighting continued.
Eventually I discovered what I'd suspected all along. The pastoral turnover that preceded me was attributable, at least in part, to unhealthy patterns in the church. I also learned that the only way for a pastor to thrive in an unhealthy church is for the pastor to be extremely healthy. An unhealthy pastor only exacerbates sickness in a sick church.
This church exposed an inescapable reality I did not want to face—I was an unhealthy pastor.
After two years there (the average tenure for the past five pastors), I was a wreck. I was physically unhealthy. I'd gained nearly 20 pounds. I would come home late at night after a typically turbulent meeting and eat an entire pizza. During the food fest, I'd watch low budget "good guy gets revenge on the bad guy" movies. The church board was the bad guy; I, of course, was the good guy. Conflict required meetings, and meetings require time. Something had to come off of my full plate. It should have been late night pizza, but I scraped off exercise instead. Unhealthy patterns of sleep, diet, and exercise dissipated my social, creative, and mental energy. I was a well that had run dry.
Physical health is intimately interwoven with emotional and relational well-being. My emotions were all over the map, but mostly in the Southern hemisphere. I would get charged up for Sunday services, especially if we anticipated a higher than normal attendance, but I was a dead battery the rest of the week. The "D"mons were all over me: I was deflated, depressed, discouraged, disappointed, and disheartened. I felt as if I could fly off the handle at any moment. As I zoned out during church meetings, I imagined myself standing and throwing my office key at cantankerous members. Why don't you try pastoring this church, you little … as I imagined it, I said it with Schwarzenegger swagger.
Eventually even Sundays were painful. Between services I would find a place to hide, usually my office or some quiet corner behind the worship platform. I spiritualized my isolation by telling people "I need some time to pray before the next service." But I was not praying to God; I was escaping from people.
Relationally depleted, I had nothing much to give my family, friends, and congregants. Simple conversation felt like a colonoscopy. When I came home from a long day at the office, conflict in the church clung to me like crazy glue. My wife and children could sense that while my body was with them, the rest of me was still at church.
My relationship with God seemed to suffer most. Perhaps I was subconsciously angry with him for calling me to pastor a messed up church that exposed my own embarrassing lack of physical, emotional, and relational fitness. I stopped passionately and patiently listening for the voice of God through Scripture, and I ceased consistently and constructively speaking to God about my hopes and hurts through prayer.
I was alone. I was afraid.
For a while, I was an unhealthy pastor who could still do my job well enough to get paid, which was both alleviating and alarming. At some point, however, I couldn't even do "the job" anymore. I was in my study by 7:00 a.m., my typical time for tackling sermon preparation. Despite my unhealthy condition, I still enjoyed developing and delivering sermons. But not on this particular morning. I sat paralyzed at my desk. I could not focus. I could not think. I could not write. I wanted out, not merely from pastoring this church but pastoring period. The thought of seriously wanting to quit something that I knew God called me to do, the thing I once loved, brought tears of shock and sadness to my tired eyes. I was ready to cut and run for something safer, like selling cars or houses. What happened next was a miracle of grace.
Someone knocked. Nobody knocks on my door this early in the morning. The knock persisted so I wiped away the tears and put on my pastoral happy face. I opened the door and was greeted by two women, one who worked in the church office and another who served as a teacher in our preschool. One of them said, "We felt impressed by God to come and pray for you. Do you mind if we pray over you?" The tears returned as I dropped to my knees and said simply, "Please."
It made a difference. God had heard my cry and dispatched two praying angels. That picked me up when I was flat on my back. He renewed my hope and my calling that day. "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand" (Psalm 40:2).
That was a pure gift of God's grace, for which I am endlessly grateful. But I also knew that if I was going to stay on the rock and out of the mud, I had to adopt habits that would foster physical, emotional, and relational vigor.
My prescription for health involved several significant commitments. I purchased a treadmill and began running three to five miles four times per week. The physical exertion made me tired enough to fall asleep by 10:00, not midnight. I slept about eight hours daily, instead of my typical five or six.
Healthy habits of sleep and exercise positively impacted my diet. I was motivated to eat fruit for breakfast, a salad with chicken for lunch, and a sensible dinner. I tried my best to drink only water (and coffee!). I avoided eating after 7:00 in the evening. My energy level increased considerably, which heightened my creative and intellectual capacities. Physical well-being paved the way for emotional and relational health.
I embraced a few habits that fostered emotional fitness. First, I sought out a mentor who would offer me the wisdom and love I needed to navigate the life and ministry challenges confronting me. Second, I protected my weekly day off and used all of my annual vacation days. Rest liberated me from the messiah complex that placed the church squarely on my shaky shoulders. Observing Sabbath was my way of expressing to God, "This church belongs to you."
The emotional weight lifted even more when I committed to enjoying hobbies several times each month. My hobby of choice is fly-fishing. Multiple creeks were within ten miles of the church. Standing in moving water casting flies to rising trout somehow nurtured emotional equilibrium. On occasion I would golf with friends. I admit, though, that trying to hit a little white ball in a slightly larger hole several hundred yards away does not always promote emotional health for me.
As my body and mind were getting healthy, so was my soul through relational intimacy. I opened my soul to God by journaling the most honest, heartfelt prayers I could write. I would listen for God's voice through Scripture and the contours of the day before responding with my written prayer. My connection to God was returning in full force.
Of course, the residual benefit of relating to God is a desire to connect more deeply with others. My wife, Amy, and I committed to a date night every two weeks by finding some friends who were willing to trade off childcare duties. During our dinner dates, we focused conversation on the things that matter most, saving small talk for another time. Amy is a rich relational resource I want and need.
I humbly embraced my need for friendship, too. One desperate day, I made a list of four guys I sensed God brought into my life for deep friendship. Then I initiated a weekly breakfast or lunch with one of the guys so that each month I met with all four.
Finally, I made room in my schedule to meet with new believers in the church who excited me and staff people who energized me. Making room for these relationships gave me the capacity to deal with those "extra grace required" folks.
As I maintained these physical, emotional, and relational commitments, in time I became healthy. My own health carried a surprising side effect. The church I pastored became healthy, too.
We experienced a major turnaround. We tripled in size. More important, this congregation was part of the 1 percent of churches at the time whose primary growth came from conversions not transfers. We were most widely known for our community development and multi-ethnicity.
Looking back on my story, I see an undeniable, compelling pattern. Healthy pastors cultivate healthy churches that develop healthy communities.
I've felt that. It is good. And maybe that's how the kingdom of God starts to come "on earth as it is in heaven."
Lenny Luchetti is associate professor of proclamation and Christian ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University's Wesley Seminary.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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